How shall we apologize for this one? Hear echoes of ancient myth—say, King Candaules' sin of wife-exhibitionism? Espy a Christ symbol in our martyr knight, felled by a jousting Longinus? Discern decadence in class structure decay and blood-wound fetishism? Or, God forbid, just take it seriously, as did von der Hagen ("most genuinely Germanic virtues")?
Let's not try. Let's call it soap opera, the immortal entertainment. In the oldest traditions, crazed lovers had raised the curtain on literacy itself. In European literature, their pedigree reached back at least to Ovid. When they became knights and ladies in the Middle Ages, great and not-so-great poets all had a turn at inventing distracting trials for them. As knighthood slid into decline, their ordeals ascended the heights of the ridiculous.
Not the greatest of poets, much less the author of this tale, could have turned these lurid neuroses into high art. A sermon on constancy? Totally lost on the cast—even as the husband delivers his final, rapturous tribute, we're told he had not the faintest idea of what had been going on, having slept through it all and failing to notice blood all over the place. An earnest parable? Better tell the congregation how to keep a straight face while the townsman's wife, made she knows not how into a knight's lady, tries to wrestle the gushing corpse of her admirer out of her bedroom and up a handy plank into the window of his own. Virtue divinely rewarded? Let your thoughts not stray from heaven as she climbs toward the suicidal bier, stripping off one garment at a time.
There are a great many variations and analogues to the theme of this story. They outline a history of the notion that a knight best attracted a lady's attention by risking his life in stylized combat, a behavior euphemized as "service." He could expect, in the formative days of chivalrous classicism, the reward of marriage and blissful, aristocratic patrimony. If he got himself killed on his errand, his lady was required to expire at once from grief. As conventions grew more saintly in the wake of the Crusades, fates more stringent awaited him, from stylized consummations to surpassingly elegant renunciation. Monastery and convent retirement were favorite options. Foreign campaigns also brought interracial twists, resulting in some startling miscegenations, such as Parzival's piebald half-brother (in Wolfram von Eschenbach's sprawling biography of his candidate for Lord of the Grail). When the chance of liaisons across class differences emerged in the late Middle Ages, the number of possible complications was squared again, and resolution of the whole mess was increasingly left to a better afterlife.
That was a great creative discovery. The storyteller now was free to bind up his love-victims into as cross a dilemma as fiction could invent, secure in the knowledge that all had to come right with the ultimate sacrifice. And he could forget about problems of credibility, for the distraught, jousting suitor and his spellbinding desire object no longer cost anyone pangs of identification, only the cramps of laughter.
In the present example, the author several times mentions that he was following a written source ("I have read. . ."). But who could have written it? Only one survivor knew all: the lady's maid.
We owe her much. How poor would storytelling be without her, melodrama's unfailing font of truth and gossip!